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Laboratory Turnaround Times

in Emergency Departments
Eliminating wasteful steps and bottlenecks with Lean Six Sigma

White Paper
Walk into the Emergency Department (ED) of your community or university hospital
during peak hours and what will you most likely see?
nA chaotic environment where everyone is moving in various directions
nM any patients sitting around wearing a “waiting” expression on their faces
At a Glance nS ome patients being treated ahead of others, while the priority for being seen is
Organization unknown to them
Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center nP atients laying in beds, on gurneys, and sitting in chairs; others waiting and
attached to IVs
nE verything stopping and changing when an emergency patient is brought in by the EMS
Business Issue
Perception by Emergency For the physicians, nurses, technicians, administrators, and clerks who work in the ED,
Department physicians that access this is too often the norm. To the outside observer it looks confusing and unorganized.
to Laboratory data for ED patients One is tempted to ask, “Isn’t there a better way to do this?” And the answer to that is,
is taking too long. “yes.” The challenge is how to achieve it.
Methodology Applied
DMAIC, Value Stream Analysis
The ED is often the primary care for many patients. Patients who are uninsured, under-
Business Impact
Improved access to lab test results insured, or those who have no primary care provider turn to a hospital ED as a safety
will lead to: (1) 51% reduction in net to gain access to the healthcare network. Surprisingly, some people move from one
laboratory waiting times in ED and hospital ED to another in the hope that no one will remember them or gain access to their
quicker disposition of patient to records. For other patients they simply cannot get an appointment or do not want to wait
home or hospital admission; (2) fewer for an appointment with their primary care physician. Indeed, surveys have shown that
patients diverted to other hospitals
with more admissions to SCVMC; ED visits are expected to continue to increase.
and (3) more efficient utilization of
ED and laboratory staff. Of course, EDs are designed to be for emergency patients requiring immediate and often
lifesaving treatment. They were not intended to handle high numbers of walk-in patients.
It is no surprise then that many ED patients complain about their care. Chief among the
reasons for long wait times is laboratory turnaround times (TATs). Laboratory results have a
cascading effect on patient throughput: Tests influence patient management decisions from
admittance to discharge.

The reality is that the quality of patient care and a hospital’s financials can be significantly
affected by laboratory test processes from the collection of specimens and their travel time to
reporting. In addition to these process flow issues, surveys have shown that slow laboratory TATs
result in negative perceptions of a healthcare facility by ED physicians. In a survey performed
by the College of American Pathologists (CAP) of 1,937 ED physicians in the U.S., six out of ten
reported that slow laboratory TATs lowered their overall satisfaction of a hospital.

To address the waste and bottlenecks in the critical laboratory test process, San Diego’s
Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center (SCVMC) expanded its implementation of Lean Six
Sigma. A pioneer in change, the medical center serves a growing population in San Diego’s
South Bay. Between 2000 and 2005, SCVMC experienced a 25 percent growth rate, owing
in part to its location 14 miles from the Mexican border.¹

Management had recognized the value of Lean methodologies to improve patient care
while reducing costs and was using Lean tools in various projects throughout the hospital.
The hospital had held several Lean events centered on their Rapid Medical Evaluation area
to improve the process flow for non-urgent patients. However, over a period of time the
hospital began having the same problems as before – too many patients waiting in the ED
and numerous patient complaints.

Define Phase
To jumpstart the ED Laboratory TAT project, senior leadership chose a Project Sponsor,
who then formed a multi-disciplinary team from the ED and the laboratory. Since
SCVMC was more accustomed to using Lean events for improvement projects, NOVACES
provided a Black Belt to help guide the team along the DMAIC roadmap. The Six Sigma Tools Applied
DMAIC approach is a closed-loop project roadmap that includes defining the problem, Define
measuring the problem, analyzing the data, improving the process, and controlling and Project Charter, Current State
Value Stream Map, SIPOC, VoC
sustaining the improvements. Measure
Value Stream Mapping, Data
During the initial meetings, the charter was refined and the problem statement and Sampling, Control Charts
business case were clarified. The problem was stated that there is a perception among ED Analyze
physicians that access to Laboratory data for ED patients is taking too long. Survey data Cause & Effect Diagram, Control
Charts, Graphical Data Analysis
from ED physicians show a satisfaction rating of 68.8/100. This ranks ED satisfaction with Improve
Lab TAT at the 15th percentile in the Press Ganey All Facilities peer group. Prolonged Trystorming, Future State Process
access to laboratory results may result in delayed diagnosis and treatment of ED patients. Map, Implementation Plan
Patients may be diverted to other area hospitals, resulting in lost revenue. Prolonged Control
access may lead to inefficient use of Laboratory and ED staff. Delays in patient diagnosis Control Charts, Control Plan
and treatment create patient dissatisfaction and the perception of not receiving timely,
quality care. The business case included savings of reduced cycle time in the ED, reduced
potential for patient diversion to other hospitals and increased ED capacity.

The Laboratory at SCVMC is accredited by CAP and staffed by 62 full-time employees

who perform over 2 million tests annually. Over 20 percent of ED patients are admitted
to the hospital, which is an acute care facility of 333 beds that serves an average of 135
patients a day with peak hours between 10:00 am – 11:00 pm.²

An important part of Sharp HealthCare’s quality efforts include measuring physician

satisfaction every year. The 2007 survey identified the ED physicians’ dissatisfaction with
the TATs for laboratory results. They noted that they made frequent computer checks
until all of their results were available, finding the process to be frustrating. Nurses
were affected, too. They also reported frequent computer checks for results on the same
patients. This was an “Aha!” moment. Why were both physicians and nurses checking the
same computer system for results on the same patient? As a quick-hit improvement for
this effort, it was decided that checking for test results should be the physicians’ task since
they had to act upon the results.

In addition, the previously completed process improvement efforts that impacted this project
were standardized phlebotomy carts, color coding of ED patient labels, and moving the
pneumatic tube station to the phlebotomy area within the laboratory. Keshgegian and Bull
have shown that the use of a pneumatic tube system has resulted in faster TATs by reducing
transport time.3 Nevertheless, despite improvements in laboratories over the past several
decades, the laboratory ED TAT has remained at or greater than one hour.4-7 A study of outlier
TATs, defined as TATs in excess of 70 minutes, showed that only 28 percent are caused by
the analytic phase of the total testing process; rather most delays occur in pre-analytic steps
associated with specimen collection and transport or post-analytic stages involved with
reporting the results.8 Importantly, the factors found to statistically contribute to faster TATs
were laboratory control of specimen handling and rapid transport time.9

To address the ED physicians’ perceptions of slow test results, the team used Value
Stream Mapping (VSM) to analyze how the process flowed to bring the results to the

ED physicians and ultimately to the patients. As part of this evaluation, the team also
developed a SIPOC diagram illustrated in Figure 1 that helped to identify all the relevant
elements before the work began. Another tool called the Critical-to-Quality Tree (CTQ)
in figure 2 was utilized to convert the most important needs of customers (the patients) to

Figure 1 – SIPOC Diagram for Laboratory Results

Figure 2 – The CTQ Tree

measureable characteristics of the laboratory process. The CTQs were rendered from the
Voice of the Customer (VOC) by working directly with the external customers (patients)
and internal customers (Physician, MEC, RN, LVN Phlebotomist, Radiology, and Clerk)
for the process.

Measure Phase
Measurement of the key inputs and outputs is only possible if the patient flow is known. In
this case, the flow needs to be viewed from the point the patient enters the ED to the time
laboratory results are available. After the baseline data was collected and processed, it was
determined that the average time from arrival of the patient at the ED triage window to
the first test results was 109 minutes during peak hours (10:00 am – 10:00 pm). The VOC
and CTQ exercises revealed that the key satisfiers for both physicians and patients were
safety in starting the IV and drawing blood samples, rapid transport to the laboratory for
processing, and quick availability of results.

Figure 3 – Cause & Effect Diagram

Analyze Phase
A Cause & Effect Diagram figure 3 was created to focus the team’s efforts. The first finding
was the time that passed at the Triage window and patient registration. Compounding
these delays, the patient was moved from one room to another – from Triage to waiting to
blood drawn. The effect these two impediments had on the TAT for laboratory results was
severe so they became the initial areas of the process to improve.

During the Analyze Phase, a number of key discoveries were made about the process. The
primary delays occurred in the “Arrival to Order” and “Order to Collect” steps, while the
delays in transporting blood to the laboratory for processing were considered short delays
and well within acceptable limits. Based on this analysis, the team members agreed that
the major focus of process improvements needed to be in reducing the non-value added
steps that were uncovered.

The team also identified that these issues are Critical to Quality [CTQ] for patient
safety. (1) The starting of the IV and the drawing of blood specimens could be done by
any one of three types of staff – laboratory phlebotomists, LVN phlebotomist in the ED
and ED staff nurses – each with their own set of process steps. (2) There are multiple
hand-offs in patient registration at the Triage window which lead to delays in initiating
standing laboratory orders. (3) The IV blood drawing process occurs only after the

patient has been fully evaluated by the Triage Nurse and returned to the waiting room.
Since there is no central processing area for the IV start and phlebotomy to be carried
out, the staff must look for a vacant spot in a hallway, an alcove or whatever other small
space is available at the moment. Then a mobile supply cart must also be moved to that
area. Only then can they escort the patient from the waiting area to this location to
carry out the procedure.

Improve Phase
Based upon a review of the Value Stream Map and the Cause & Effect diagram as well as
discussions with both the ED and laboratory staff, the team implemented a “Trystorm.”
Trystorm is a common reference to piloting a trial improvement that focuses on a few
select factors, usually conducted over a one or two week period. The team conducted its
Trystorm for two weeks during the peak hours of 10:00 am to 10:00 pm. The ED directors
and laboratory monitored the Trystorm from beginning to end, insuring the data was
appropriately collected.
The principal process improvements established for the Trystorm included:
1. One ED RN or LVN, trained in starting IVs and drawing blood, drew all blood
specimens for triaged patients. Other RNs and laboratory phlebotomists drew blood
on critical patients arriving by ambulance. Previously the lab specimens were held in
the ED until they had collected a batch before transporting them to the lab. During
the Trystorm, each patient’s specimens were sent to the laboratory without delay.
2. The Patient Registration process was revised to enable faster entry of the standing
laboratory orders into the hospital database.
3. A lthough there were space limitations in the general ED areas, the triage room was
found to be adequate for both patient evaluation and the phlebotomy process. This
allows the IV to be started and the blood specimens obtained by the IV nurse while
the Triage nurse simultaneously evaluates the patient. The focus is on “one stop
– one stick process” for the patient. If the nurse is unable to start the IV, then the
Laboratory is contacted as a backup.

At the conclusion of the Trystorm, data from fifty random patients over a five day period
were analyzed and compared with the pre-Trystorm patients as shown in Figure 5.

TAT (Minutes) Mean Standard Deviation

Before Improvements 108 64
After Improvements 53 27
% Improvement 51% 57%
Figure 4 – Dramatic improvements were made in laboratory test TATs.

Control Phase
The results of the Trystorm process improvements showed a 51% decrease in average
TAT and a 57% reduction in process variation. Based upon the significant reduction
in average processing cycle time and reduction in variation, the team moved to
implement permanent improvements and to control the gains. The control chart in
figure 5 depicts the improvements in both the mean TAT and the variation in TAT.
The reduction in TAT variation enables the ED to provide much more consistent,
reliable healthcare services.

The team recommended to the executive leadership that the improvements be made a
permanent part of the EDs protocols. The ED supervisor will monitor the RN or LVNs
who start the IVs and draw the blood. The start of the IV phlebotomy process will be
done at the same time another RN triages the patient, while the laboratory provides the
protocols for the IV phlebotomy process. If unable to start the IV, the RN or LVN is to call
for backup from the laboratory.

There were a series of other important improvements to the process made that were
uncovered by the project related to blood specimen orders, drawing and handling.
Meanwhile for ongoing data collection, the ED staff will obtain data on randomly selected
patients weekly as a means to sustain the gains achieved. The data will be analyzed twice
a month to assess process TAT times. If the data shows longer cycle times, the staff
will immediately reassess the steps of the process and make appropriate modifications.
Quarterly patient and physician satisfaction surveys will be conducted to insure that the
process improvements remain ‘hardwired” in the hospital system. Sustaining the gains
will require a concerted effort by all levels of Sharp Healthcare leadership.

Figure 5 – Control chart of TAT

1. The City of Chula Vista (2008). Demographic Trends; Retrieved September 1, 2008 from http://www.
2. Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center; 2008. Emergency department statistics. San Diego: Author.
3. Keshgegian AA, Bull GE. Evaluation of a soft-handling computerized pneumatic tube specimen delivery
system: effects on analytical results and turnaround time. Am J Clin Pathol 1992;97:535–540.
4. Reiber NH. Survey of emergency-room usage gives guidelines for improvement. Hosp Topics 1965;43:69–73.
5. Cue F, Inglis R. Improving the operations of the emergency department. Hospitals; 1978; 52:110–113, 119.
6. McConnell TS, Writtenberry-Loy C. Whither waiting: turnaround times of laboratory tests for emergency
room patients. Lab Med 1983; 14:644–647.

7. Steindel SJ. Timeliness of clinical laboratory tests: a discussion based on five College of American
Pathologists Q-Probe studies. Arch Pathol Lab Med 1995; 119:918–923.
8. S teindel SJ, Novis DA. Using outlier events to monitor test turnaround time. Arch Pathol Lab Med
9. Steindel, S.J. & Howanitz, P.J. (February 5, 2001). Physician Satisfaction and Emergency Department
Laboratory Test Turnaround Time; Observations Based on College of American Pathologists Q-Probes
Studies. Archives of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine: Vol. 125, No. 7, pp. 863–871

About the Authors

Arda Peterson, MBA, MT (ASCP), CLS
Laboratory Manager, Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center
Arda is a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and Certified Change Agent.  She has over 15 years
experience in quality management and quality improvement within several healthcare
organizations in the San Diego area. She has been a speaker for the Clinical Laboratory
Management Association (CLMA) on the topic of Lean Six Sigma in Laboratories.  She
also facilitated the first Kaizen event at Sharp HealthCare and has served on many other
Lean and Six Sigma projects within the organization.  In prior roles at Sharp, she instituted
and completed the patient safety effort to ensure that every patient had a barcode enabled
wristband and that every nurse had a barcode identification badge.  She has won organizational
recognition several times for her contributions to quality and growth.

Sharon Rudnick, RN, BSN, MSN

Manager of Emergency Services, Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center
Sharon has 20 years of experience in managing the day-to-day operations of a very busy,
crowded Emergency Department. In this role, she has led several initiatives to increase
efficiencies and streamline processes. She is a member of the California Hospital
Association Trauma and EMS committee, San Diego County Emergency Medical
Oversight Committee and Emergency Nurse’s Association. She received her BSN and
MSN degrees from San Diego State University. Her professional appointments include
representing the California Emergency Nurses Association on the State of California
Emergency Medical Services Commission and vice-chairperson of this committee for
three years.

Charles Mount
Director of Healthcare Services, NOVACES
Charles, CAPT, USN (Ret.) is the director of healthcare services for NOVACES. He
oversees the company’s services in Lean Six Sigma programs to improve patient
care, safety and satisfaction, which simultaneously generate more profitable business
outcomes. He has deep and abiding experience at all levels of healthcare, owing to
his 38 years in the U.S. Navy dedicated to advancing patient care at military hospitals
around the world. For example, he coordinated the implementation of Total Quality
Management for 5,000 employees at the U.S. Navy’s largest medical center in San Diego.
In addition to his expertise in healthcare and education, as a Commanding Officer, he
has conducted strategic planning sessions for a variety of organizations with emphasis
on development of mission, vision, and values. Over the years, he has written about
managing change in healthcare for a variety of publications. He is both a Lean Six
Sigma Black Belt and a graduate of the Institute for Federal Health Care Executives. He
holds a B.Sc. degree in Nursing from the University of Washington and a M.Ed. from
the University of San Diego.

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About Us
NOVACES is a leading provider of continuous process improvement (CPI) consulting and
training services to the public and private sectors. By leveraging over two decades of applied
research experience, the company is capable of delivering today’s most effective methods
for generating breakthroughs in operational capabilities and financial performance.
Employing its SystemCPI methodology, NOVACES provides clients with an integrated
framework of Lean, Six Sigma and Constraints Management to deploy and manage a
process improvement program, resulting in faster and better return on investment.

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